JAMA study: Women doctors face swarms of distressing personal attacks on social media

By Arianne Cohen

January 08, 2021

Doctors are on more than one frontline these days: A horrifying study in JAMA Internal Medicine this week finds that physicians are commonly harassed online.

Researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago found that one in four doctors experienced online attacks based on their medical advice, religion, or race, pre-pandemic. The researchers point out that these numbers have only risen in recent months, due to antagonism toward the medical field over lockdowns and public health measures.

The types of harassment are alarming and varied:

    barrages of negative reviews

    personal attacks on social media

    coordinated online harassment


    threats, including rape and death

Sexual harassment was exceedingly common, with one in six female doctors reporting it on social media.

First author Tricia Pendergrast, a medical student at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, warns that this harassment is particularly damaging to women’s careers.

“We worry that this emotionally distressing environment will drive women physicians off social media, which has been well-documented as a helpful career-advancement tool,” she said in a news release. “Women in medicine are already less likely to hold leadership positions or be first or last authors of research, so disproportionately abstaining from a platform used for collaboration and networking due to sexual harassment and personal attacks should be a cause for concern.”